Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Category: Covenant Community

Critical Issues for the Cross-cultural Church Planter

This summer I read The Messenger, The Message and the Community: Three Critical Issues for the Cross-cultural Church Planter by Roland Muller.  It was a read that was long overdue.  You see, the author is a friend of mine, and I have followed his ministry closely for about 25 years. About 14 years ago, as the first edition of some parts of this book was being written, Roland Muller asked me to read it and give some feedback.  To my regret, and with some degree of embarrassment now, I admit that I did not finish reading the manuscript, although I did give some thoughts on the part of the book that I did read.   As a result, the author used some of my graduate study research to support one of his arguments and somewhat undeservedly, included my name in the acknowledgments.

About seven years later, Roland combined three books he had written into this current book.   The three sections of The Messenger, the Message and the Community are taken from these three prior works: Tools for Muslim Evangelism (published in 2000), Honor and Shame, Unlocking the Door (2000) and Creating Christian Community (2005).   A couple of years ago, Roland Muller published a second edition, seeking to broaden the audience to include those who do not serve primarily among Muslim peoples.

Community and character

During the last 10 days, I have been in Japan, getting to know our SEND missionaries and their ministries in this beautiful, yet spiritually unresponsive country.   Over the years, I have heard much about the challenges and discouragements faced by our church planters here, but one thing I had not realized is the challenge of creating a real sense of “authentic community” within a Japanese church.   Japanese people are very committed to their work, and with long commutes to work and long hours at work, they often are only available for meetings on Sundays.    As a people, they are also committed to preserving the forms and conforming to the expectations of their culture.   They find it difficult to leave the safety of this prescribed tradition and truly become transparent with one another.   Even believers who share a bond in Christ struggle to get back the polite forms and to allow a brother or sister to see their vulnerable side, their areas of personal need and weakness.   Our missionaries long to see believers experience deep friendships that will nurture their spiritual growth and provide support in times of discouragement and anxiety.   But how to create this sense of community is a difficult question, and I am encouraged by some of the creative methods our missionaries are trying to encourage this level of intimacy.

But creating a sense of community is not only difficult for Japanese believers.  As missionaries, we also often struggle to led down our guard and remove the masks that pretend that everything is going well in our lives and ministries.  Even within our missionary teams, we do not nearly always experience this freedom to be transparent with one another.   I think our younger missionaries find it easier to share their weaknesses and failures than those of us from the baby-boomer generation or older, and they often have higher expectations of “authentic community” within our missionary team than those of us who have been here a while.    Granted, it is not prudent or helpful to show all our dirty laundry to everyone; some boundaries in sharing are appropriate.   But for those of us who serve on the same ministry team, and are part of a covenant community, we should be able to find at least a few that we trust enough to allow them to get past our missionary masks to see into our lives – peer deeply enough to be able to help us grow.   As we share our frustrations, hurts and failures, others can encourage, coach, suggest alternatives, maybe even help us see a discrepancy between our values and our actions.

Sabbath and the covenant community

As we seek to understand what it means for our mission team to be a covenant community, we need to go back to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.  Their identity as a people was grounded in their special covenant relationship with Yahweh.   The Lord God made some special promises to them (redemption from slavery, a land of their own flowing with milk and honey, etc), and made clear His expectations of His chosen people (no tolerance for hedging their bets with the competition, obedience to the Law, etc).   As a sign of their mutual covenant, God gave them the Sabbath, both as a distinguishing practice among the nations, and as a scheduled life “pause button”, enabling them to refocus their attention on their relationship as a covenant community with their God

Because the Sabbath day was a sign of their covenant, the Israelites were to remember to observe Sabbath and keep it holy (Ex. 20:8), refraining from engaging in regular work on that day.  Neglecting to honour the Sabbath was much more serious than just indicating a tendency to work-alcoholism; it would demonstrate their disregard for the covenant itself.   By treating this day as ordinary, they were in effect telling God and the world that they did not consider their relationship with God to be anything special.

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